Always leave them wanting more. This could be the mantra for Chloe (Dana Delany), a Capitol Hill wife who’s got lovers eating out of the palm of her hand. She has a habit of withholding, which frustrates and turns on political insider Peter (Steven Culp). The only one who fully accepts the limited amount she’s willing to give is her husband Tom (Steven Weber), a potential nominee for U.S. Attorney General. Beau Willamon’s play, inspired by the largely forgotten Henri Becque’s La Parisienne, is as irresistible as Delany’s Chloe: smart, tart, attractive, but just a bit bloodless.
The play that put Willamon on the map, Farragut North, was another DC tale of personal relationships sacrificed for political ambitions. George Clooney turned that into Ides of March, for which Willamon shared an Academy Award nomination. Currently the playwright is the show-runner for the Netflix TV series House of Cards, about a congressman whose thwarted desire to be Secretary of State drives him to commit extreme acts of revenge.
Willamon’s only failure so far, the off-Broadway disappointment Spirit Control, focussed on an air traffic controller. I was impressed by that play’s emotionality, but can’t argue with a writer who decides in his next works to mark a territory that is definably his. He’s now the go-to guy for setting sharp turns of phrase and plot within a skillfully observed world of DC skullduggery.
NY’s Flea Theatre brought the Becque novel to Willamon’s attention and he smartly recognized how well a realigned adaptation moving the action to contemporary Washington would fit into his wheelhouse. He keeps the contours of its famous first scene intact. A man and woman in a well-appointed townhouse have a jealous squabble. He wants to see her phone and emails. She can’t believe he’s serious. We take it for a typical marriage spat until she hears something and shuts him up with “Ssssh. It’s my husband.”
While Becque initially finds a bracing humor in the typical French love triangle, he uses his five acts to strip away the gooey sentiments and expose the hard truths at the center of most relationships. Willamon attempts to go even further, removing Becque’s own excesses to create a gleaming 90-minute one-act that’s, like Delany’s fetching figure, without an ounce of fat.
Most everything lands. Chloe sets out to get the nomination for Tom, who needs all the help he can get. He’s willing to be happily blind to the details of how she intends to do it, just as he has little interest in her dalliances. Here as in Becque’s play, Tom isn’t treated as a fool. Their bond is intriguingly solid, but like everything else it’s presented as just another cog in the plot’s machinery. I wanted more, but not because it was so satisfying. it’s refreshingly untrod ground in the culture that’s unfortunately also unexplored by Willamon.
There’s a moment when Weber drops the charm and laces the banter with a bracing directness. The production’s emotional temperature is raised, but just briefly. Breeziness returns a moment later and for the most part holds steady.
When Peter gets petulant over Chloe’s giving him the cold shoulder, he uses his influence to block Tom’s advancement. So she turns to acquaintance Jeanette (Linda Gehringer), a Treasury Secretary nominee. In the play’s longest scene, Chloe defends her lack of personal ambition and demonstrates how far she’s willing to go to get what she wants. It’s the only time the play has an airiness and, in this case, it seems a bit ill-considered. One wonders why mover-and-shaker Jeanette has this extra time to kibbitz. But it leads to a gasp-inducing plot revelation that gets the audience’s juices going.
In Pam McKinnon’s sparkling world premiere production, her cast is as bright and charismatic as the characters. Culp, in particular, gets all his laughs while finding soupcons of grit in Peter’s desire for Chloe. The luxe design elements are similarly top-notch, though David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes for Jeanette’s daughter Rebecca (Rebecca Mozo) are dismayingly unflattering. When it comes to outfitting Delany, he gets everything right.
Delany carries every scene as if it were the lightest load. She has a habit of looking out at the audience in the middle of scenes. One realizes Chloe can’t resist trying to seduce everyone she comes across, including us. She ultimately gets her quarry.
The Parisian Woman runs through May 5 at South Coast Repertory/ Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa (714) 708-5555.